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Par for the Course

MTSU golf coach Whit Turnbow proves that one good deed leads to many others

 

By Bill Lewis
Photography by J. Intintoli

On the eight-degree morning Coach Whit Turnbow tweeted an offer to find a winter coat for anyone in need of one, he was shocked by the need he discovered. What didn’t surprise him was the generosity of the MTSU family.

“It’s a reminder what kind of country we live in,” says the Blue Raider men’s golf coach. Students, alumni, and local sports fans rallied to support his effort, donating hundreds of coats and the cash to purchase more.

The coat drive grew so dramatically that it earned a name—the True Blue Turnbow Project—and may become an annual event.

The whole thing began quite simply. Turnbow remembers being chilly in his car as he drove to campus at 6:45 a.m. for a team meeting. He could only imagine how cold it was for a man he saw on the street walking without a jacket.

“It was one of those days when the high was 14,” he says. Turnbow picked up his phone and tweeted, “Thinking about the kids who don’t have a warm place to wait on the bus or a winter jacket . . . If you know someone like this, DM me, and I will personally see to it that they get a new coat.”

“I just thought I’d run down to Walmart and buy a few coats,” said Turnbow.

He had no idea just how many coats were needed, or that just a few miles away, two first graders were suffering from frostbite after walking to school in their shirtsleeves. His tweets went viral among teachers in Murfreesboro and Rutherford County schools and in Bedford County, where Turnbow’s brother is a coach.

“Suddenly there were 30, 50, then 70 requests,” he says.

He called Murfreesboro businessman Matthew Neal, who offered to drop everything and meet the coach at Walmart. They walked out with $600 worth of jackets.

The Murfreesboro school system alone received 100 coats, along with mittens, gloves, and scarves, says central office employee Lisa Trail. “It was truly a blessing,” she says. “Children grow so quickly in elementary school, it can be a tremendous strain on families.”

She wasn’t surprised when she heard about Turnbow’s tweets or when he called her to see if the schools needed help getting the coats to children who needed them.

“The MTSU community, especially athletics, reaches out to [our] students on a regular basis,” Trail says. “MTSU is a strong community supporter and has a tremendous outreach to our students.”

When Director of Athletics Chris Massaro suggested collecting coats at a men’s basketball game, fans donated hundreds of winter jackets. The Student-Athlete Advisory Council and members of the men’s and women’s golf teams collected them at the doors of Murphy Center. At a later women’s game, fans made donations of $20 to $200 “right out of their pocket,” Turnbow says.

For a time, it was impossible to buy a winter coat in Murfreesboro. They had all been snapped up by members of the MTSU community.

“People who brought coats said, ‘I had to drive to Smyrna or even Nashville to get this,’” Turnbow says. “We cleaned out Walmart, Kmart, and Old Navy.” The weather in Murfreesboro is warm now, but Turnbow is already planning for next winter.

“We’ll replenish the supply at the schools,” he says, “Our job will be to make sure they have coats to keep them warm.”

Turnbow was awarded the Make a Difference Award for his True Blue Turnbow Project at the third annual Raiders Choice Awards in April. The awards highlight accomplishments in the Blue Raider athletic family. MTSU


 

Chasing the Green

MTSU golf alum Jason Millard attracted the attention of major sports outlets nationwide in June when he self-reported a penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the 18th hole of a qualifying tournament that resulted in his disqualification from playing in the 2014 U.S. Open.

PGA.com described Millard’s action as “a prime example of the honor code in professional golf.” Reaction around the golf world, it added, was first one of shock, then respect and admiration.

Millard admitted he wasn’t 100 percent sure he actually grounded the club but that deep down he thought he did. His decision to report the possible infraction to officials deferred his dream of playing in one of golf’s annual major tournaments.

That isn’t to say Millard hasn’t had a breakthrough year in professional golf. A few weeks before the incident, he became the first Blue Raider since Mike Harmon in 1982 to play in a PGA event. Millard qualified and played in the Honda Classic in Florida.

Golf coach Whit Turnbow flew to Palm Beach Gardens to caddy for Millard during a practice round. Though Millard didn’t walk away with the winner’s share of the $6 million purse that weekend, he did gain something invaluable.

 

“He took away the confidence that he can compete at the highest level,” Turnbow says. “He’s chasing
that dream.” The U.S. Open experience no doubt confirms that.

 

Another former Blue Raider golfer, Hunter Green, later qualified for and played in the PGA Wells Fargo Championship in May in Charlotte, N.C.

 

 

Not to be outdone by the men, MTSU freshman Samantha Gotcher qualified earlier this year for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, becoming only the second Blue Raider in history (Taryn Durham in 2007 was first) to qualify for the prestigious tournament.

 

 

 

 

Teeing Off

For the sixth time in the last seven years, Middle Tennessee’s men’s golf program earned a bid to the NCAA tournament. Only the nation’s top 81 teams were invited to compete in the 2014 tournament. MTSU’s regional took place at The Club at Old Hawthorne in Columbia, Missouri, May 15–17. The low five teams from a total of six regionals advanced to the NCAA National Championships. Other universities competing in MTSU’s regional included No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 11 Virginia, No. 14 LSU, No. 24 Arkansas, and 26th-ranked Arizona State. MTSU was led this year by juniors Brett Patterson and Payne Denman.

The MTSU golf team excelled academically in 2014 as well, earning a Public Recognition Award from the NCAA for scoring in the top 10 percent on its most recent multiyear Academic Progress Rates. The APR provides a real-time look at a team’s academic success each semester or quarter by tracking the academic progress of each student-athlete. The APR includes eligibility, retention, and graduation in the calculation and provides a clear picture of the academic culture in each sport.

It marks the fourth straight year the men’s golf program has been recognized. The women’s golf team, led by coach Chris Adams, also received the award, a first for the women’s team.

Pro Aspirations

Logan Kilgore’s NFL hopes rest on his arm and on his head

by Drew Ruble

 

Sports Illustrated writer John Lopez introduced a formula in 2010 aimed at predicting the future success or failure of college quarterback prospects at the professional level. According to Lopez, if an NFL prospect scored at least a 26 on the Wonderlic test, started at least 27 games in his college career, and completed at least 60 percent of his passes, there was a good chance he would succeed at the NFL level. (The Wonderlic test, a popular group intelligence test used to assess the aptitude of prospective employees for learning and problem-solving in a range of occupations, has become best known for its use in evaluating prospective professional football players.) If a prospect did not reach those three high-water marks, their chances of success professionally diminished.

The list of quarterbacks since 1998 to ace all three parts of Lopez’s formula includes Peyton Manning, Phillip Rivers, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, and Matt Stafford. (Others include Matt Shaub, Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton, and Ryan Fitzpatrick.)  Those who failed at least one part of the formula include famous NFL busts Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, David Carr, Vince Young, and JaMarcus Russell. Based on those lists, it would certainly appear that Lopez’s formula is a pretty accurate barometer of quarterback success at the highest level of the sport.

Middle Tennessee quarterback and recent graduate Logan Kilgore hopes to be drafted by or to sign a free-agent contract with a professional football team later this spring. For the record, Kilgore started 38 career games for the Blue Raiders and had a 61 percent passing completion rate. At the request of NFL teams, Kilgore has already taken the Wonderlic test several times. Though teams have not revealed to him what the results were, it is highly likely that Kilgore met or exceeded Lopez’s threshold score of 26. That’s because Kilgore is not only a highly decorated college quarterback but also a highly accomplished academic graduate of the University.

 

During his senior season, Kilgore was named to the Conference USA All-Academic Team. The list, selected by the league’s media relations directors for football, consists of student-athletes who have earned a 3.2 cumulative grade point average or better and are starters or key reserve players on their team. Kilgore earned his undergraduate degree in three years and received his M.B.A. (with a 3.78 GPA) before graduating last winter. The Rocklin, Calif., native was also named to the Commissioner’s Honor Roll each semester he played and was also a Capital One Academic All-District III member. He was a two-time winner of the Terry Whiteside Award, presented for excellence in academics, football, strength training, community service, and campus activities. (Whiteside is dean of the College of Behavioral and Health Sciences, and MTSU’s faculty representative to the NCAA.)

 

Kilgore is busily preparing himself to audition for NFL scouts who may be interested in drafting him in May or signing him to a free agent tryout contract afterward. His athletic accomplishments are likely to draw at least some interested scouts. After all, Kilgore is a member of the 2013 Manning Award Watch List, which is presented every season to the nation’s top quarterback, as judged by the Sugar Bowl Committee in conjunction with ESPN.com. Kilgore owns a school record of 53 career touchdown passes and is the first player in MTSU history to throw for more than 2,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. Kilgore and the Blue Raiders completed an 8-4 regular season in 2013 and led the team to the Armed Services Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas, against the Navy Midshipmen last December.

 

At almost 6’3” and more than 210 pounds, Kilgore has the size NFL scouts like in a prospective quarterback. In today’s pro game, where speed and elusiveness is key to keeping plays alive, Kilgore’s 4.9-second 40-yard dash speed is also attractive. The Sports Exchange rates Kilgore the 24th best quarterback of 152 eligible for the upcoming May draft. It also rates him the 492nd-best overall player out of roughly 4,000 eligible. No doubt MTSU’s move to a larger, more competitive conference (CUSA) during Kilgore’s senior season (and the success both he and the team experienced playing better competition) bodes well for his prospects.

 

Bryan Perez, director of college scouting for firstroundgrade.com, lists Kilgore among his five “under the radar” quarterback prospects in the draft. According to Perez, “Kilgore is a traditional pocket passer who has a strong arm and can make all the NFL throws. Kilgore throws a nice, tight spiral and presents as an intriguing developmental prospect. He’s shown the ability on tape to make all the throws, but he is a limited athlete who, as stated above, is going to need to get bigger in order to have a shot at a long NFL career.”

 

Kilgore has something else working in his favor. He  is represented by “Bus” Cook, one of the top pro football sports agents in America. In fact, Kilgore is the only college quarterback Cook is representing in the draft. Cook’s list of pro quarterback clients includes recent Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson and household names Cam Newton and Jay Cutler. Cook is actively lobbying NFL teams to take a closer look at his client.

 

“When he calls, people pick up the phone,” Kilgore says.

 

According to Kilgore, who has been training in Mississippi alongside fellow NFL prospect A.J. McCarron of Alabama, the feedback he’s been receiving from NFL teams has been very positive.

 

“We have been hearing good things from teams, and I fully expect to be in a pro camp at the start of next football season, whether it be through the draft or through free agency,” he says.

 

What will Kilgore do if for some reason that dream of playing in the NFL doesn’t materialize? Kilgore credits MTSU head football coach Rick Stockstill for preparing him for that possibility.

 

“Coach Stock emphasized to all of us from the time we got to Murfreesboro to make sure we use MTSU to our advantage – don’t let MTSU use you,” Kilgore says. “I took that to heart. I graduated early, worked my butt off, and got my M.B.A., always thinking about the fact that football isn’t going to last for anybody…Coach Stock has helped me position myself for success regardless.”

 

[Editor’s notes: MTSU defensive back Sammy Seamster and lineman Josh Walker are the Blue Raiders most likely to be drafted in May. Kilgore, defensive tackle Jimmy Staten, and cornerback Kenneth Gilstrap will also, according to various media reports, receive consideration either as draft picks or free agent signees.]

 

You can see Logan Kilgore’s Career Highlight Reel below:

Paying Dividends

The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders football squad proudly represented C-USA in the 11th annual Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl Dec. 30, 2013. It was the program’s eighth bowl game—the fourth during Rick Stockstill’s tenure as head coach—and its first as a new member of C-USA. The invitation was the result of the Blue Raiders’ 6–2 record in league play and tie for second place in the C-USA East Division. The game against Navy took place at Amon G. Carter Stadium at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Middle Tennessee could not slow down the vaunted Navy rushing attack, as the Blue Raiders fell 24-6 to the Midshipmen.

Middle Tennessee vs Navy in Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium on the TCU campus in Fort Worth, Texas on December 30, 2013.

Described by athletics officials as “more than a bowl game” with its military theme and involvement, the event was broadcast on ESPN television and radio and also carried worldwide on the Armed Forces Network. Owned and operated by ESPN Events, the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl has featured an armed forces theme since 2006. Patriotic observances recognizing all five branches of the military were presented throughout the game. It is the only bowl game that has hosted all three U.S. military academies.

MTSU boasts a proud military history of its own. Murfreesboro was built on Revolutionary War land grants, and when Middle Tennessee State Normal School was established in 1911, battle damage from the Civil War was still visible on local buildings. The area around the University was used for drilling and training during World War I, and five Middle Tennessee students were killed in action, including William McConnell, who wrote the school’s first alma mater. MTSU also leads Tennessee in its commitment and service to veterans. MTSU is the first choice in higher education for Tennessee’s veterans, and for four consecutive years, G.I. Jobs magazine has designated it a “military-friendly campus.” In 2011, the Veterans Administration invited MTSU to become a VetSuccess campus—one of fewer than 10 nationwide at the time. The football program also drew attention to MTSU’s military-friendly brand last season when University officials successfully lobbied the NCAA on behalf of student-athlete Steven Rhodes, a former Marine and walk-on football player, who had previously been ruled ineligible as a result of his participation in a military-only recreational football league.

 

Announcing MTSU’s invitation in early December, Brant Ringler, executive director of the Armed Forces Bowl, said that the Naval Academy and MTSU’s involvement in the game would “add significantly to the legacy of this great event.” Chris Massaro, MTSU director of athletics, said that Blue Raider football “enjoyed a thrilling first year in Conference USA” and had “certainly earned the right” to participate in the Armed Forces Bowl. Coach Stockstill said, “It is hard to describe how appreciative we are to be playing in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl,” stressing that the city of Fort Worth and the surrounding community “put on a first-class event” that served “as a great reward for a successful season.

          True Blue!

 

All in the (MT) Family

DNJ photo by Aaron Thompson Kerry Hammonds and his son Kerry.

One local father-son duo leaves an indelible mark on the Blue Raider basketball program

by Katie Parker

The name Kerry Hammonds has been synonymous with Blue Raider basketball since 1984. Hammonds led MT to three NCAA tournament appearances (1985, 1987, 1989) and ranks third all-time in scoring with 1,616 career points. He also ranks second all-time with 955 career rebounds.

His legacy is embodied in his son, Kerry Hammonds II, a guard in the middle of his senior season averaging 11.8 points a game with the Blue Raiders. Like his father, the junior Hammonds helped MT to an NCAA tournament appearance in addition to two straight regular season titles in the Sun Belt Conference. Before the Blue Raiders’ NCAA appearance in 2012–13, the 1989 season was the last time MT made the tournament field.

Growing up in Murfreesboro, the younger Hammonds played at Siegel High School, where he was a Mr. Basketball finalist as a junior. Despite his father’s legacy, MT wasn’t even on the radar for him.

“It wasn’t about making my own mark somewhere; it was more about it being in Murfreesboro and me wanting to go away to school,” Hammonds said.

Once the recruiting process started, the son decided to give MT head coach Kermit Davis a chance to change his mind. Hammonds Sr. stayed out of the decision-making process for his son, not wanting to pressure him into choosing his alma mater.

“He really didn’t force anything on me. Growing up, I really didn’t ever think that I would come here to be honest,” said Hammonds. “I said I wasn’t going to come here, but as the recruiting process came, and I went to other schools, I came here, and I just liked the way it felt.”

Hammonds added, “My father said that he was proud of me and he was ready to just watch me play. He told me to not think about what he did, just come out here and play basketball like I know how to. To be honest, I don’t really think about it being his alma mater, but I guess it’s pretty cool to come to the same school where he accomplished so much.”

The younger Hammonds has also made his mark at MT. As a junior, he made the game-winning shot against Ole Miss and had a key steal and layup in the final seconds that led to a victory over Vanderbilt.

Though the elder Hammonds steered clear of the recruiting process, Hammonds says his father provided plenty of good advice about how to succeed in college as a student-athlete. “Him and my mom both just let me know to be smart, because whatever you do is magnified moreso than the regular student at MTSU. So you have to be smart with the decisions you make and the people you hang out with. You just have to think about it before you do things.”

Men's Basketball vs in-state rival Belmont. True Blue Jerseys for Blackout game.

And now the younger Hammonds has words of wisdom of his own for high school prospects.

“I would encourage all prospective student-athletes to give MT a long, hard look,” said Hammonds. “The school and athletic programs have a lot to offer and it’s a place where you can accomplish all your goals.”

True Blue Statement

When the Middle Tennessee men’s basketball team stepped on the court at Murphy Center on December 1, the Blue Raiders were wearing special blackout game jerseys—and affirming their devotion to MTSU’s True Blue values.

Head Coach Kermit Davis said the players decided to replace their names on the special uniforms for the contest against Belmont with the words “True Blue.”

“At the beginning of the season, we talked about the values that we represent as a team and as a university,” Davis said. “We felt these special jerseys could reflect how each one of us are striving to be True Blue on and off the court.”

The True Blue Pledge, which each freshman class recites at the beginning of the school year as part of Convocation, reflects the University’s values of honesty and integrity, respect for diversity, engagement in the community and commitment to reason, not violence.

The Science of Sport

Ebony Rowe excels at both sides of the scholar-athlete equation.

 

By Drew Ruble

 

 

Lady Raider Ebony Rowe is among the ten most prolific scorers in school history and already is the program’s leading rebounder. And she still has the rest of her senior season ahead of her. Such athletic prowess garnered Rowe Honorable Mention All-American status by both the Associated Press and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association last year. She was twice a top-50 finalist for the Naismith Award, given annually to the nation’s best high school and college basketball players and coaches.

Off the court, Rowe has racked up an equally impressive portfolio of statistics in the form of academic and personal awards. Notably, she was named to the Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar Women’s Basketball First Team as announced by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. A true student-athlete, Rowe has earned higher than a 3.5 cumulative GPA as
a physics major.

In all likelihood, Rowe will have the opportunity to play women’s professional basketball, following in the footsteps of Lady Raider alums like Alysha Clark and Amber Holt. However, Rowe isn’t yet committing to a plan to play professional ball. She’s as interested, she says, in beginning pursuit of a postgraduate degree or beginning her career in mechanical engineering.

“At this point, I’m just trying to keep all my doors and options open,” she says. “Whether that’s playing professionally here or overseas or going straight into getting my master’s degree in engineering, I’m still undecided.”

 

         A Dual Threat

With her high GPA, passionate interest in her studies, and wait-and-see approach to playing pro sports, Rowe bursts the stereotype of the academically disinterested student-athlete. And what makes her even more intriguing is that her major is science-related—a field of study far more dense than the proverbial “basket weaving” coursework the public tends to think about when it paints student-athletes with a broad brush.

Rowe describes perceptions of student-athletes as “dumb” and science majors as “nerds” as “a sad mentality that’s just developed and is taken as truth now.”

 

 

“A lot of people told me you can’t be a basketball player and an engineer. But it can be done,” she says. “More people need to start showing the younger generation that competing in high-level athletics and excelling in the classroom can be done.”

As a physics major, Rowe takes classes such as Classical Mechanics, Strength of Materials, and Electricity and Magnetism. Among her recent research projects was a study of the physics of free-throw shooting in basketball. It’s an ironic topic for Rowe to tackle given her highly publicized troubles at the free-throw line in competition. Even her coach has been publicly critical of Rowe’s free-throw shooting percentage in years past, which for a time hovered below the 50 percent mark. Rowe has, however, improved dramatically over the past year and is now one of the best free-throw shooters on the Lady Raider squad.

One might think that a shot called a “free throw,” when no one is guarding you and you simply step up to a line and take a wide-open shot, would be an easy exercise. But according to Rowe, it’s much more complicated than that. Rowe’s description of a free throw from a physicist’s perspective sounds so dizzyingly difficult that it might even cause a coach to take it easy on an athlete for a fair-to-middling performance.

Rowe begins her explanation by pointing out that there are an infinite number of speed/angle combinations that can lead to a successful free-throw shot (or an unsuccessful one), but the chances of success are greatly improved by increasing the arc on the shot so that the ball is falling straight down, increasing the relative size of the hoop, as compared to a shot with a flatter trajectory.

“There’s so many little mechanics that go into a free throw,” Rowe explains, citing release point, launch angle, ball velocity, shape of path, optimum speed, varying force, and distance, among other variables. “So when you start to break it down piece by piece, if any one of those measurements is off by a certain degree, it can cause you to miss your free throw.”

In her research, Rowe used a simulation program to shoot 10,000 free throws, altering all of these little measurements incrementally to reveal proper and improper mechanics— and outcomes.

“These small calculations applied to a free throw can throw off the whole shot based on the smallest of technicalities,” she says, referencing concepts including forward spin, frictional force, and horizontal motion. (Lady Raider fans can no doubt imagine Coach Rick Insell groaning at such an explanation.)

So is Rowe’s classroom exercise to be credited for her improvement from the free-throw line? She says no.

“It’s so funny, a lot of people said to me, ‘Well, your free-throw percentage got a lot better now that you broke it down,’” she says. “And I say, ‘No, I just practice.’”

 

The Next Step

Rowe is also already making waves in the professional world. For the second straight summer, Rowe spent her academic break working as an intern with the Fortune 500 software firm Lexmark in her hometown of Lexington, Ky. She worked alongside an electrical hardware engineer and had access to robotics and other types of machinery and testing on what she describes as a “real world product” in “early stages of development.”

Rowe’s sister is a chemical engineer at Lexmark. Her dad earned a degree in civil engineering and works in the corporate world. Rowe says math and science were “just something that ran in the family and, I guess, came easier than other subjects. So it’s definitely just been a passion.”

Such interest and involvement in a science discipline is statistically unusual for a woman. A 2010 report by the American Association of University Women found that the number of women in science and engineering is growing, yet men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of the professions.

Rowe is only too happy to use the power of her celebrity as a high-profile athlete to encourage more girls and young women to pursue science studies and careers.

“That’s what is so good, especially about being an athlete, because you get to reach out to so many different people,” she says. “So whether it’s young females who are playing sports or whether it’s young African Americans or young African American girls, there also aren’t a lot of African Americans who are choosing the sciences and engineering and physics. I think it’s just the more people start to do it, the more that it’s going to be expected, and it’s not going to be, ‘Oh, you’re a female or an African American in sciences.’ It’s just going to become normal. So I think we just have to take it a step at a time. It’s gotten better, but [we still have] a long way to go.”

 

 

Special Fan Guide

 

The Relationship Builder

Hard work and a commitment to lifelong learning propels sports advisor and MTSU doctoral student Michael Lawson

by Drew Ruble

Michael Lawson, 36, isn’t your typical MTSU student. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for Lawson to have to step out of a class briefly to take a phone call from the National Football League Players’ Association, or from the head of sports marketing at Anheuser-Busch, or from one of the men he works for, who include (arguably) the best offensive and the best defensive players in all of professional football—Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson and Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Troy Polamalu.

A soon-to-graduate Ph.D. student in the Health and Human Performance program at MTSU, Lawson is a Nashville-based professional sports management advisor who has already achieved, career-wise, what other students in his classes dream of one day doing. Anyone who has seen Polamalu’s and Johnson’s hugely successful television commercials are familiar with Lawson’s work. A nationally recognized branding and marketing expert, Lawson has also consulted for some of the largest and most successful companies in the world. They include O’Reilly Auto Parts, global soccer conglomerate FIFA, and the aforementioned Anheuser-Busch, to name a few. (Lawson does not negotiate player contracts; he directly manages the marketing, endorsement, and public relations strategies for professional athletes. He does, however, negotiate professional and collegiate coaching contracts.)

Lawson’s professional success has him traveling more than 200 nights a year. He granted MTSU Magazine an interview the morning after he attended the 2013 Super Bowl. It’s not unusual for Lawson to work 80 hours a week. And yet the father of four has somehow found a way to take 12 hours of MTSU doctoral level coursework each semester—requiring a study time commitment of about 25 hours a week.

Why does he do it? One conversation with him makes it clear that Lawson is a lifelong learner who firmly believes in the power of continuing education. He also has his eye on obtaining the academic credentials required to one day work in a university setting like MTSU, where he can share the benefit of his business experience with younger people vying to be entrepreneurs like himself. MTSU’s doctoral program offers exactly what Lawson needs to make that dream a reality.

“Yes, it can be hard to come back from, for instance, New Orleans and to go straight to an advanced data analysis class from six to nine o’clock on a Tuesday night,” Lawson admits. “But that’s the process I signed up for. That’s what I need to do to accomplish what I ultimately want to accomplish. Because any innovation or advancements that can help you understand what is happening in your profession are good. You continually apply it. It has to be about continuing education because that makes you better.”

Clearly, getting better is something Lawson excels at. Consider his career path. Originally from Elkhart, Ind., and a defensive back on the Indiana State University football team, Lawson for a time harbored dreams of playing in the NFL. Instead, with a degree from the sports management program at ISU in hand, Lawson set his sights on becoming an athletic director at a major college. His first job out of college was working at West Point in marketing as a writer for their public affairs office in athletics.

It was at West Point that Lawson met the high-profile athletic director for the Louisville Cardinals, Tom Jurich. Lawson was soon hired to run the Kentucky university’s athletic marketing and put together their sponsorship program. The timing was perfect. Basketball coach Rick Pitino had just been hired to coach the basketball squad. Louisville football was on the upswing nationally and was soon to become a top-10 program. Lawson helped modernize the way the university was selling sponsorships by packaging media elements like radio rights with signage and events and promotions. With Lawson’s help, the university quadrupled revenues from sponsorships. He established a solid reputation in his field.

Lawson parlayed that experience into a position with Nelligan Sports, an aggregator of college properties that specializes in bundling radio, TV, and promotional rights of multiple college athletics programs in order to sell sponsorships to corporate entities like Chevrolet—as opposed to more traditional approaches like selling to individual truck dealerships. When Nelligan would ink a deal with a Ball State or Marquette for its services, Lawson would relocate to the university, assemble a team, and negotiate deals to increase marketing value. Nelligan eventually signed MTSU, the alma mater of Lawson’s in-laws. So Lawson and his family moved to Nashville.

At Nelligan, Lawson got a call from Jonathan Blue, an old friend and a booster from his days with the Louisville Cardinals. Blue, an entrepreneur and private equity specialist, was busy acquiring and tying together various sports businesses— from SFX’s tennis practice, which represented six of the top- 10 women players in the country to pro football super-agent  Joel Segal’s practice, which included clients Michael Vick and Chris Johnson. Blue needed someone to put a public relations and marketing front together and to negotiate his largest endorsements. He wanted Lawson.

Lawson spent the next several years with Blue, building a particularly special bond with Titans running back Chris Johnson. While on a Nike photo shoot in Oregon, that relationship drew the attention of Steelers star Polamalu, who soon left one of the largest marketing and public relations agencies in the world to have Lawson represent him. When Blue decided to cash out of the entertainment area, Lawson continued for a short time working for the buyer, Europe’s massive Lagardere Unlimited agency.

After seeing Lagardere through a transitional period, Lawson had the professional equivalent of a Jerry Maguire moment. (Remember the moment in that famous movie about a sports advisor when the character portrayed by Tom Cruise issues the famous line, “Who’s coming with me?” and hangs his own shingle?) Lawson opened his own independent, Nashvillebased sports management practice, 4A Management (an allusion to his four children, whose names all start with A ), with a roster of clients that included Johnson, Polamalu, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ receiver Vincent Jackson, and Vanderbilt University baseball coach Tim Corbin, to name a few.

Lawson’s reputation is built on aligning his athletes with brands that well reflect the image they wish to convey. That’s why you won’t see Polamalu representing any junk food brands. Instead, he opts for lending his image to brands such as Head & Shoulders. Most recently, Polamalu agreed to become chief spokesperson for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).

Lawson’s careful handling of his clients is reciprocated with unwavering commitment from them. Take for instance a Super Bowl–week interview with Chris Johnson on national television, during which Johnson was asked to name the eight people he would take for a ride in program sponsor Hyundai’s new eight-passenger vehicle. Johnson named Lawson among the family members he would take.

Lawson’s goals are to continue his successful sports practice, but also to use his Ph.D. to become a working professor. “What I am really passionate about is that ability to influence and work with students in a campus environment on a day-today basis . . . to help provide value back that maybe benefits that next wave of people.”

Lawson credits MTSU sports management program director Colby Jubenville with inspiring and pushing him to pursue the Ph.D. Jubenville, meanwhile, credits the University’s commitment to the region for attracting stars like Lawson to campus.

“Those who think MTSU isn’t serious about connecting with industry or serving the needs of the marketplace should take note of these kinds of relationships on our campus,” Jubenville says. “Look no further than Michael Lawson’s presence on campus to see that the University is in tune as an educational partner for this region and the nation . . . that we know what is good for the student, the University, the state of Tennessee, and our economy.”

Play Ball!

A not quite A-to-Z look at former Blue Raiders playing their trade in professional baseball this spring

by Drew Ruble

Among the many wonderful signs of spring at MTSU is the distinctive “ping” of aluminum bats hitting baseballs at Reese Smith Jr. Field.

The MTSU baseball club is once again highly competitive in the Sun Belt Conference this year and no doubt has several players on the roster who will get a chance to play professionally in the years ahead.

Many of their Blue Raider baseball predecessors are already earning a living playing pro ball, either on the “senior circuit”—Major League Baseball—or in the minor leagues, where they continue to chase their dreams of winding up in the “big show.”

Here’s a quick photo gallery of former Blue Raiders and their current status on the professional ladder as baseball season kicks in to full gear.

Perfectly Aligned

Counting the many upsides of MTSU’s recent leap to C-USA

by Drew Ruble

Blue Raider fans cheer as Murphy Center's new C-USA banner is unveiled during halftime of the Jan. 26, 2013 men's basketball game versus WKU airing on ESPN2.

MTSU’s recent invitation to join Conference USA for intercollegiate athletics, beginning July 1, 2013, clearly elevates the standing, competitiveness, and stature of the University’s athletics program. C-USA teams and athletes have made nearly 700 NCAA championship appearances since the league’s inception in 1995.

“We have been a proud member of the Sun Belt Conference and we appreciate our years as a member of the league,” said president Sidney A. McPhee.

“However, this change is a natural step in the evolution of our athletics program.”

Here is a top-10 list of reasons why MTSU’s jump to C-USA was a good one: A bigger piece of the pie: C-USA members enjoy significant national and regional television exposure and revenue sharing through partnerships with CBS Sports, Fox Sports, and ESPN.

Brand expansion: Beyond TV visibility, the conference’s expanded geographic footprint and already established brand enhances MTSU’s chances of becoming a household name.

Student-centeredness: The move provides MTSU student-athletes with bigger stages, bigger challenges, and bigger opportunities and also gives MTSU more identifiable opponents, rich in athletic tradition.

Reaching goals: Joining a more established conference matches a primary thrust of MTSU’s current $80 million fundraising campaign—to gain national recognition for the prowess of its athletes and the quality of its sports programs.

Survival of the fittest: In the rapidly reshuffling collegiate athletics landscape, which could one day lead to “super-conferences” that determine athletic championships, schools like MTSU must act aggressively to realign or risk being left behind.

Validation: The C-USA invitation validates the hard work and progress MTSU has made over the past decade both athletically and academically.

Conferences look at a lot more than just athletics when choosing new partner institutions, and for MTSU to be joining a conference that includes Rice University—a top academic institution nationally—is a signal of quality.

Student recruitment: The move greatly increases MTSU’s ability to recruit better athletes on the promise of established bowl game tie-ins, bigger venues in which to play, and a higher level of competition.

Perfect match: MTSU adds value to Conference USA, specifically through exposure in the Nashville TV market at a time when the conference has recently lost markets in Houston, Memphis, New Orleans, Dallas, and Orlando.

More support: The added prestige, visibility, and increased fan interest makes MTSU more attractive for corporate sponsorship. The move should also motivate more giving from boosters, who have wanted something like this to happen for a long time.

Some Blue Raider supporters who haven’t yet given monetarily may be inspired to get off the sidelines.

New rivalries: Consider that just a few years ago, there was no rivalry between MTSU and Troy. C-USA members such as the University of Alabama–Birmingham (UAB), Marshall, and Charlotte seem to be natural regional foes.

A Fish Tale

The story of MTSU’s competitive bass fishing squad keeps getting bigger and bigger

by Drew Ruble

MTSU's competitive bass fishing team, led by fifth-year senior Nolen Spencer (pictured), recently beat out more than 40 other squads for first place in a Collegiate Bass Fishing Trail tournament on Chichamauga Lake.

Few Blue Raiders are aware that among MTSU’s myriad club sports is a bass fishing team that competes regionally against programs like Kentucky and Florida. Currently led by fifth-year senior Nolen Spencer (pictured), the team recently beat out more than 40 other squads (including the University of Kentucky) for first place in a Collegiate Bass Fishing Trail tournament on Chickamauga Lake. Spencer and partner Jonathan Reese caught a five-bass limit weighing 19.02 pounds at the November event, winning $1,000.

Spencer helped launch the team in 2008 along with graduates Tyler Barnes, Reid Harrington, Josh Morton, and D. J. Boggs. The team mainly survives on sponsorship dollars from supporters like Smyrna Ready Mix (Mike Hollingshead) and Mean Mouth Lure Company (Tim and Cinnamon Turrentine).

More than 200 collegiate bass fishing teams exist nationwide—a clear reflection of how fast the sport is growing. Modern bass fishing has evolved into a multibillion-dollar industry with more recreational participants than golf and tennis combined. The sport is becoming so popular on campuses that many high school students take bass fishing programs into consideration when making their college choices. Across Tennessee, college-based programs are ramping up to meet that demand. Bethel University offers scholarship money to college anglers, and Tennessee Tech boasts more than a dozen university-owned boats. (MTSU anglers, by comparison, use their own boats to compete.)

Spencer, who aims to find employment in the outdoors industry after graduation, hopes the future is bright for the club he helped found.

“This is my last year, so I want to do well this year, and win a few tournaments,” says the marketing major with a minor in business administration. “I also want to leave the club as its last founding member confident that future MTSU anglers will have a better opportunity to raise money and compete more frequently than we did.”
Andrew Agee and Matt Allen at the 2012 BoatUS Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship, Pickwick Lake, Florence AL (courtesy CarecoTV LLC)

Andrew Agee and Matt Allen at the 2012 BoatUS Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship, Pickwick Lake, Florence AL (courtesy CarecoTV LLC)